The legal battle between the ousted Hillsborough state attorney and the governor who suspended him continues today in a Tallahassee courtroom.
As a federal judge considers whether Andrew Warren should get his job back, he began hearing Tuesday from witnesses who illuminated the circumstances that preceded his suspension and the reasons behind Gov. Ron DeSantis’ action.
Warren, a progressive Democrat, contends it was political retaliation by the Republican governor, and that the suspension violated his right to free speech. The governor’s lawyers say he removed the state attorney from office because he’d refused to prosecute certain state laws.
Testimony continues today.
Here are some highlights from Day 1 on Tuesday.
‘Public safety czar’ details inquiry into Warren
Larry Keefe, the governor’s public safety czar, testified Tuesday that DeSantis constantly railed against “woke” prosecutors. He said the governor first asked in a December meeting if there were any in Florida who weren’t enforcing the law.
Aiming to find out, Keefe said he spoke with the Florida Sheriff’s Association and prosecutors across the state. He said he learned Warren had a reputation for being “hostile and antagonistic” to law enforcement. He also spoke with Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and former Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan, who were also critical of Warren.
He also said he spoke with Tampa brothers Preston and Rex Farrior, who have donated thousands of dollars to GOP politicians, including $20,000 to DeSantis, and Tampa lawyer Martin Garcia, who was chair of Republican Pam Bondi’s successful campaign for Florida attorney general in 2010. (Garcia’s daughter, a federal prosecutor, was considered as a potential senior member of the office after DeSantis ousted Warren, Keefe testified.)
He was asked if he spoke with Tampa’s current police chief, prosecutors in Warren’s office, or victims rights groups about Warren’s performance. Keefe said he did not.
Warren recounts being yanked from office
As the first witness to take the stand Tuesday, Warren recalled how he learned that he’d been yanked from office. It happened as he was monitoring grand jury proceedings in a murder case. He got an email. “You’ve been suspended,” he said it read.
He walked back to his office to confer with his chief of staff, Gary Weisman. Minutes later came a knock at his door.
Keefe entered with two sheriff’s deputies. One of them Warren recognized as the major in charge of courthouse security. Keefe, Warren said, handed him a copy of the governor’s suspension order, but refused to let him review it, telling him he needed to leave immediately.
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“I’m sorry, Andrew,” the sheriff’s major said. “You need to go.”
The governor’s lawyer admits key point
Among the reasons the governor cited in the suspension order was a pair of statements Warren signed with other elected prosecutors and law enforcement officials throughout the nation. The statements, compiled by the progressive organization Fair and Just Prosecution, pledged not to prosecute cases involving abortion or transgender health care.
DeSantis’ lawyers contend that by signing the statements Warren was acting as a government official and thus isn’t protected by the First Amendment. They noted Warren signed them with his official title as state attorney.
“He pledged not to enforce the law, in a blanket policy,” DeSantis’ attorney, George Levesque, said Tuesday.
But the governor’s lawyers could cite no examples of Warren refusing to prosecute abortion-related crimes.
U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle asked Tuesday for the specific laws Warren vowed not to enforce.
“I concede, there is no criminal law that addresses transgender,” Levesque said.
Letters were not office policy
The court also heard Tuesday from two prosecutors in Warren’s office.
Jeria Wilds, the chief of the office’s problem-solving courts section, testified that she was unaware of the statements until DeSantis removed Warren.
Kimberly Hindman, chief assistant of the office’s felony division, testified that she was aware of the abortion letter because it was briefly mentioned in an executive staff meeting. But neither letter reflected the office’s official policy and they did not impact their work.
Warren did adopt policies against prosecuting cases based on bicycle stops and other low-level offenses, believing them to disproportionately target Black Hillsborough County residents. But even that policy had caveats: Prosecutors could still charge someone for driving with a suspended license or panhandling, for example, if prosecutors had “significant public safety concerns.”